Laura Coates has a preview peek inside Kildare's latest tourist attraction
It’s mid-morning on a drizzly June Wednesday, and I’m on the back of a horse that I’ve bought, named and trained, as we’re tearing up the main stretch at Naas Racecourse.
Alongside me are a couple of other masked-up hacks, and we’re whooping and hollering as we vie to be first past the post. It’s not quite how I expected my day to go when I rolled out of bed a couple of hours earlier.
It’s not the real Naas Racecourse, unfortunately - and neither are these real horses. Instead we’re in a race simulator, the grand highlight, and unashamedly best craic bit, of the Irish National Stud’s new multi-million euro visitor attraction, which is due to open to the public this Thursday.
The Irish Racehorse Experience is set inside a new, purpose-built building on the grounds of the Irish National Stud at Tully, outside Kildare town - and the Leinster Leader/KildareNow was among those to get a preview peek inside the day before opening.
Visitors take a self-guided tour using a headset and tablet. These let them access top-notch video, audio and graphics which tell the story of the racehorse, from its breeding and birth and the sales and training process, right through to its first race.
Pick your winner
The Experience is built on a clever and engaging concept - every visitor has a ‘budget’, with which they get to buy and name a horse, hire a trainer and put together a regime, design their jockey’s silks and enter their first race.
Plenty of familiar Kildare faces can be spotted throughout the interactive exhibit. Visitors get to bid at Goff’s ring under the eye of Henry Beeby; get training advice from Moone-based Jessica Harrington plus hear stories from real-life Irish National Stud staff. Newbridge’s Dr Adrian McGoldrick and Curragh trainer Johnny Murtagh also feature in an interesting filmed section about jockeys’ lifestyles and the sacrifices they make for the sport.
Older children (8+) and teenagers will find the exhibits absorbing - they can handle and compare the size of heartbeats in human and horse hearts, and see real jockey’s saddles and silks, for example. You can even have a go at ‘commentary karaoke’ - record and listen back to yourself calling a big race in a mocked-up commentator’s booth. You can also try your hand at picking a winner against an expert; or listen to tall tales from the bookies’ pitches.
But it’s undoubtedly the ‘race’ at the end that’s the piece de resistance - when you see if your carefully-chosen mount (in my case picked because she looked a bit feisty); selected training regime (lots of beach walks and massages for my girl, sure who wouldn’t want that!) and pretty silks will be first past the post. In the end, ‘Dragon Money’ was pipped to come a respectable second - not bad for someone who hasn’t actually been on the back of a horse in years.
This new visitor attraction is an unstuffy, fun, while at the same time educational, look inside the world of Irish horse racing. It has obviously been put together by people who know and love the industry, and its horses - from the stars of the track to the stable staff, trainers and owners alike.
Indeed, the attraction ends at an exhibition on equine welfare and the lives of retired racehorses. It’s fitting that this space overlooks the paddock which houses some of the Irish National Stud’s own galaxy of stars - Beef or Salmon, Kicking King, Hurricane Fly, Hardy Eustace and Rite of Passage, plus latest addition Faugheen. Not that the boys were too interested in the gaping of visitors during our visit, preferring their own company at the other end of the field.
The exhibition has been three years in the making. It was meant to open last year, before work on it was halted due to Covid-19.
Making racing accessible
Designer Rob Molenaar of Dublin-based DWM Creative said they wanted to convey the enthusiasm of the people in the industry to the ‘ordinary’ visitor, who may not be overly-familiar with the world of racing and might think it is an elitist sport.
Fáilte Ireland contributed just under €2 million to the €3.2 million cost of the project, as part of its 2019 large grants scheme.
Cathal Beale, INS CEO, expressed his delight that the exhibition has finally opened.
“We’ve had, in our own parlance, plenty of false starts - tourism in general has, and we’re no different. We’ve been ready with it since May or June of last year and we’ve tried to open it a couple of times but we haven’t been able to with Covid. It’s great to finally have the go-ahead to open it safely. We’re part of the Failte Ireland tourism charter, so we know exactly how many people can come in, people can feel safe and have a really world-class experience on their doorstep.”
He expects the Experience to be popular with locals and those on staycation vacations this year, but will also attract foreign visitors when travel reopens.
Book a spot
The Irish Racehorse Experience is well worth the extra fiver cost on top of a general admission ticket to the INS and Japanese Gardens (€14/€11 seniors/€8 children over 3). Family tickets and season memberships are also available.
The new attraction will be open from 11am to 3pm daily. Visits must be prebooked online, and numbers through the exhibition at any one time are limited, in accordance with Covid-19 regulations.
WATCH: Video of the new attraction below
The Irish Racehorse Experience offers visitors the chance to own, train & ride their own thoroughbred, culminating in a thrilling real-time race ☘️ Will you ride your colours to victory?— Irish National Stud (@IrishNatStud) June 2, 2021
Pre-booking essential, visit link in bio #setyourpulseracing #irishracehorseexperience pic.twitter.com/0QIqzIvSFM
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